by Kelly Kirkendoll Shafer
Originally Published in the March/April, 2004 Issue of Your Stepfamily. Used with permission.
Editor’s Note: As you get ready to create your Thanksgiving menu, keeping your stepfamily’s favorite foods in mind may help keep the peace – even if it isn’t the traditional turkey and dressing. Kelly shares her food experiences as a new stepmom in this practical but humorous slice of life.
Within minutes of giving birth to my first child, the voice of mother-guilt whispered to me: Everything that goes in his body is YOUR responsibility. I heeded the voice and took great care in the nutrition choices I made for my son and, later, his little sister.
Feeding my children healthy foods was easy when they were preschoolers. For the most part, I had complete control (something I like, of course). Then my son entered kindergarten. Later that same year, my children’s father and I divorced; and they started the back-and-forth shuffle between two homes. Suddenly, I had to face a difficult fact – I could no longer control every bite that went into their precious bodies.
When I remarried, becoming the stepmom of three school-aged children, I faced another significant challenge. While my husband and I were well-matched in most areas, our food preferences and eating habits were at opposite ends of the spectrum. This meant his children’s were, too. Still, I was optimistic that we’d be able to maneuver easily through this area as a couple and a stepfamily. I was willing to lighten up a bit, and my husband was willing to learn more about healthy eating habits. No problem, right?
Wrong. We still struggled. Well, actually, I struggled the most. A new voice spoke, the “Super Stepmom” voice, and it told me, They eat too much junk food; YOU can save them! But when I placed heaping platefuls of foreign, healthy food in front of them, products of my love and delusional thinking, they poked it with their forks, eyeing it (and me) with fear and suspicion. Even my sweet husband looked at me in a strange, new way. When the voice offered no suggestions, I realized I needed to try something different.
A New Menu
Cooking for a family is difficult enough, but in a stepfamily it has unique challenges. Even if you’re not a health nut, combining taste buds, food traditions, and eating habits is a tricky area to navigate. Unless the stepfamily was formed when the children were very young, the children have not grown up with the same food customs, rules, or preferences. Even the adults, sometimes more set in their ways than the children, have a difficult time adjusting.
Another wrinkle to iron out may be who does the cooking. In some cases, a former single dad may readily turn the food preparation reins over to his new wife (reins she may or may not want). In other cases, he may enjoy cooking and want this job, but his wife may want to wear the chef’s hat (NOT a bad problem to have). Many couples choose to share the load. In my case, because I work from home most of the time, I do the majority of the cooking.
It can become more complicated when you both bring children to the mix, especially when the children spend much of their time together. In my case, our five collective children are often with us at the same time. We prefer it this way, but it has presented its share of food-related difficulties, especially in the early days of our stepfamily life.
For example, a house rule in my single-mom home was no caffeine for the kids, and soda was a treat reserved for eating out. My husband, on the other hand, let his children have caffeine and let them drink soda at lunch and snack time. When our families joined, we were faced with a dilemma. I wanted to maintain my standards yet didn’t want the rules to be different for “my” children and “his” children. My husband agreed and even thought cutting back on soda was a good idea, yet neither of us wanted to suddenly crackdown on his kids’ soda consumption. That would make it really obvious that I was the “bad guy” behind the sudden change in rules. We decided to discuss the discrepancy openly with the children and let them know that when it came to soda, what their biological parent said went. Over time, I relaxed my rules a little, and my husband gradually became stricter. Within a year, our policies in this area blended into one.
Meatloaf Comes in Flavors
Sometimes, even smaller details have tripped us up. The first time I served meatloaf to my new husband and stepchildren, they curled up their noses. “Wait,” I said, “you all told me you loved meatloaf!” Then I learned that while I’ve always made meatloaf glazed with ketchup, my husband and his kids only ate it with spaghetti sauce. Who would have guessed?
I now make meatloaf with one half topped with ketchup and the other with spaghetti sauce. It turns out my children like it better with spaghetti sauce and one of my stepchildren has switched to ketchup.
10 Blue Plate Specials
In addition to sending the guilt and Super Stepmom voices packing, I’ve used the following ten strategies to help stave off potential food fights:
1. Don’t take their likes and dislikes personally
This is easier said than done, but to keep your sanity, avoid taking their food preferences personally. If you’re cooking for a large group, you’ll never make everyone happy with every meal. Don’t even try.
2. Accept that you can’t expect everyone to adopt your eating habits or standards
For example, if you’re a vegetarian but your husband and children are not, you can’t expect them to suddenly (or perhaps ever) adopt the vegetarian lifestyle. Find areas where you can mix your preferences. For example, I rarely eat red meat, but my husband and our children love hamburgers. We still enjoy cookouts together by serving both vegetable and meat burgers.
3. Find common ground
Talk with your stepfamily and discover what meals you all like. For some stepfamilies, this may include many, while for others it may equal three. Start with your common ground and slowly build out from there. Our stepfamily’s common ground was a small plot, but it was a start – pizza, spaghetti, tacos, fajitas, meatloaf, burgers, strawberries, corn on the cob and grilled sandwiches.
4. Be sneaky
Food choppers are wonderful allies against picky eaters. They let you chop up almost any vegetable into unrecognizable bits and sneak them into spaghetti sauce, soups, stews and taco meat.
Alternately, if you just don’t mention what’s in the dish you’ve made, they’ll often eat it. Two years after our stepfamily was formed, I prepared a completely new dish, with noodles, shrimp, eggs, an incredibly delicious sauce and a couple vegetables they had all grown to at least tolerate. It also had tofu in it, an ingredient I did not disclose. They didn’t notice this foreign substance at first. By the time they did, it was too late – they actually loved the dish. Several thought the tofu pieces were mushrooms. Others thought they were eggs. I sat quiet, without confirming or denying any guesses until their plates were almost clean. Most of them actually continued eating once the mystery was revealed.
5. Make mealtimes fun
Regardless of what you eat, sit down to meals together as often as possible. Mealtime can be fun and an important time for the stepfamily to bond and get to know each other better. Let the children and adults take turns sharing their “high” and “low” of their day. Play soothing music. Tell jokes. Laugh together.
6. Shop together
When you get children involved in grocery shopping, they’re often more likely to eat what they’ve helped select, even if it’s something new. My stepchildren had never been to a farmer’s market, so during our first summer together, I loaded all five kids in the van, and we spent over an hour shopping at a local farmer’s market. I taught them how to smell, squeeze, and thump the produce to determine the best fruits and vegetables. When we returned, everyone was willing to at least try some new fruits and veggies, especially the ones they had helped choose.
7. Create special treats and traditions
It takes time to create traditions your stepfamily will own as its own. A great place to start is with meals and other special treats. During our first summer together as a stepfamily, my husband and I casually asked each child to name his/her favorite meal (without telling them why). Each Wednesday night, for the remainder of the summer, we cooked and served a child’s favorite meal. It made for some interesting dinners, and the children felt special on their featured night. Another favorite tradition is “MYOP” night – make your own pizza. We use English muffins and place all the fixings on the table, buffet style, and each child gets to make his/her own pizza.
8. Don’t accept disrespectful behavior
As stepmoms, we work hard to make our stepfamilies jell and make our stepchildren like us. Be careful. Don’t work so hard that you turn yourself into a short order cook or put yourself in a servant-like role. You can’t expect a medal, but you can expect to be treated politely and with respect. If you’re having issues in this area, talk to your husband about your feelings. Use “I” statements and avoid telling him his children are acting spoiled and ungrateful.
9. Share the cooking
If it fits in your budget, close the kitchen and go out to eat. At home, let someone else do the cooking at least one night per week. It’s also helpful (although it often takes extra time at first) to let the children help you cook. When my oldest stepdaughter expressed an interest in cooking, I started letting her help prepare dinner. One night, I finally let her prepare a whole meal, one she chose out of a children’s cookbook. It was a hit! When dinner was over, I asked if she wanted to take over more often. Her reply? “Yes, but not too soon. That was a lot of work.” I haven’t heard her complain about a thing I’ve cooked since then.
10. Plan for cooking burnout
I go through stages when I love to cook, and other times when I don’t want to step foot in the kitchen (except to get my morning coffee). This is when my husband often takes over for a while or we go out to eat more often. But his schedule and our budget don’t allow this luxury as often as I’d like. To help prevent cooking burnout, I often cook double what we’ll need and freeze or refrigerate the extra for a day when I don’t have the time, energy or desire to cook.
© 2003 Kelly Kirkendoll Shafer
Kelly Shafer is a mother of two/stepmother of three, freelance writer, speaker and the author of "29 Ways to Make Your Stepfamily Work." She is a regular contributor to Your Stepfamily magazine, the official publication of the Stepfamily Association of America, and she publishes the Stepfamilies Work! website and free monthly newsletter. Contact Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.